Punk rock's silver jubilee

Sex Pistols - Pistols at the Palace
Sex Pistols - Pistols at the Palace

From Socialist Standard June 2002

Submitted by jondwhite on February 3, 2016

“Oh bondage, up yours!” - Poly Styrene

The angry, rebellious, nihilistic sounds of 1977 that were known as “punk rock” changed my life and that of thousands of others. It was not that nihilism itself was attractive to me. Indeed at the age of 15 I was already thumbing the works of Karl Marx and the Socialist Standard, and moving away from merely opposing the class system towards arguing for a better, classless, one. For me, however, punk was the soundtrack of my budding revolutionary stance for a political alternative to capitalism, namely socialism, a society without wage labor, money, classes, or the state. Few of the lyrics of the songs from this musical tradition were ever so explicit in expounding this vision. No, for those of us who were teenagers at the time, punk was not in any meaningful sense a movement (as the World Socialist Movement was) as much as a moment when everywhere there appeared glorious signs of cracks in the fabric of the system's ideology.

So many youngsters ,including myself, were giddy in the very mania of that moment as it offered us permission to revel in our anger and disgust at the world with its vacuous culture. We were participants in an extraordinarily surreal social event that outdid, in its sheer extent, the effects of the works of prior surreal artists equally intent on putting their spanners in the works such as the early Lettrists or Dadaists, or the later Situationist Inter-national that did more explicitly critique the systemic totality of commodity production with its alienating spectacle.

One could observe elements of that rebellious punk attitude in the young Elvis Presley of the “Sun Sessions” before he became a second-rate movie star and a GI (and a full twenty years before he died - the very year punk was born - as a sad, bloated, drug-addicted, lifeless monster unable to face his impossible fame). Similarly, the 1965 single My Generation by The Who also embodied the spunk of what would become punk, but was a relatively rare occurrence at that time. After the ebullient garage rock tradition of the 1960s (e.g. the Standells, Love, Chocolate Watch Band, Sonics, Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators), the Glam Rock bands such as the Sweet, Slade, Alice Cooper, T. Rex, Suzi Quatro, and early Bowie, similarly stood out like a sore thumb with their loud clothes, boisterous, decadent manner and androgynous look.

Rock music, which had begun in the early 1950s as an initially uniquely homogeneous and hugely marketable expression of youth culture, had turned at times political in the 1960s, but by the early 1970s had evolved into the staid and conservative domain of millionaire rock bands selling out sport stadiums – The Who, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and other exponents of so-called “prog rock”. That is why an increasingly discontent brand of British musician (and, better still, non-musician!) wanting to express his or her alienation from – and disgust at – the status quo found inspiration in the angry American sound of the MC5, New York Dolls, Stooges and eventually the Ramones, who played legendary concerts in London on 4 July 1976 (with the Flamin' Groovies and the Stranglers), and on 5 July at Dingwalls, to an audience that included future members of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Damned, Generation X, Sex Pistols, and the Clash.

Rock musical trends tend to reflect the economic state of the marketplace. The invasion of Beatlemania and that poppy, jangly, pretty sound itself (after the Beatles had abandoned their own Cavern-era punk sensibility in order to assimulate to the requirements of a major label career) were simply reflections of the market optimism that accompanied the boom of the economy during that time, and the creation of the youth market, which in rock was largely a rehash of black soul or blues music packaged for a white audience (from Bill Haley to Elvis through to the Beatles). This post-war market made the cuddly Mop-Tops, it wasn't the other way around as the impact of the Fab Four is often portrayed. The Vietnam war and the progressive slumping of the economy into the 1970s, a time of inflation, massive unemployment, strikes, and general discontent, fuelled the disco and progressive rock sounds as consumers fled into a fluffier escapism. Punk rock was the other side of the dialectical tension, the nihilistic side that contrasted the misery of the times with the hypocrisy of such events as the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebration in 1977 and of culture in general, like the rock music industry itself (“because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life” as Morrissey of the Smiths was to sing in “Panic” a decade later).

God saves the queen
Despite its modest beginnings in 1976 with such pub rock bands as the Stranglers and Eddie and the Hot Rods, 1977 was the year that punk finally exploded. Myself, my friends and an entire generation had never heard songs exhibiting such courage as that of the Sex Pistols and of dozens of other bands that crawled out of the woodwork with ripped clothes, colorful hair and safety pins in their cheeks. One could not, and still cannot, hear them without being affected, infected (“God save the queen” Johnny Rotten sang during that Silver Jubilee year, “the fascist regime, they made you a moron, a potential H-bomb . . . god save the queen, she ain't no human being, there is no future in England's dreaming, don't be told what you want, don't be told what you need … god saves the queen, 'cos tourists are money, and our figure head is not what she seems” – this song went to Number One in the Top 20 although actual listings of hits in the English charts left a puzzling empty space in their highest place as the song had been officially banned by the BBC).

Picture by Gee Vaucher: 'Bloody Revolutions'

The album “Germ-free Adolescents” by the X-Ray Spex contained the wonderful Oh Bondage Up Yours! critique of patriarchal domination. The song Obsessed With You was about the packaging of artists by their management but could just as well have been (as Poly Styrene's very name also suggested) about the alienating life of consumption (“you are just a concept, you are just a dream, you're just a reflection of the new regime, you are just a symbol, you are just a theme, you're just another figure for the sales machine”). The song Art-I-Ficial , as the title cleverly implies, was a more precise attempt to find the lost self in the world of commodity production, of the rule of things (“I know I'm artificial but don't put the blame on me, I was reared with appliances in a consumer society”).

The Adverts were one of the most fascinating, musically adept, and political of the early punk bands (having been formed in 1976), exemplified by the songs on the classic album Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts. “Bored Teenagers” was amusingly about “bored teenagers, looking for love, or should I say emotional rages.” “No time to be 21” was a song about being young in a society without a future, with “no hope and all that shit, no chances, no plans, I think I'll be somebody else, or else a madman, it's no time to be 21, to be anyone. We'll be your untouchables, we'll be your outcasts, we don't care what you project on us, it's no time to be 21.” The Adverts' songs were often dark (“Drowning Men” and “Bombsight Boy” don't get more Orwellian as descriptions of life in capitalism), and more in the realist tradition, but also tended to inspire and empower (from Drowning Men again, “shall we rise from sunken places, walk the streets, unnatural graceless, wipe the smile from your faces, if we can make it”). In not only facing, through these songs, the sheer ugliness and debasing of life in the system, but facing it together, there often came (and still comes) a courage to keep going, a human reaching out of the ghetto for the sun, for the future, for our future, perhaps. That I think is the power of the nihilism in punk rock that has been all too often misunderstood – the affirmation that is often found in negation. It is after all a rejection of the totality and not just its parts that will yield for us the new world that we will posit in its place. Punk was similarly a throwing of earth upon the whole grave that something beautiful might just grow from it. Or so it felt to me and to thousands of others.

“Are you taking over or are you taking orders? Are you going backwards or are you going forwards?” asked the Clash in White Riot from their first album. Their songs tended to suggest the romantic barricades version of revolution that we all know from history only leads to more violent repression, reactionary backlash, or further mystification, to the majority, of the revolutionary struggle which becomes falsely identified with impassioned rebelliousness rather than a calculated move by the masses to empower themselves once and for all. The Clash songs also tended to suggest those brands of reformist leftism (“Why not phone up Robin Hood and ask him for some wealth distribution?” in “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”) that were rife in England at that time what with the more militant branches of the Labor Party or the SWP. That is why as a real socialist I tended to be more inspired by the punk bands that did not have such overt political agendas, as they allowed me to interpret the songs on my own, and allowed their songs to truly act as the chorus of my own ideas

Stations of the crass
Even though socialists critique the majority of anarchists for their gradualism, reformism and avoidance of a political means to abolish capitalism, nonetheless the anarchist punk band Crass wrote many songs with which as a socialist I strongly identified. The songs on the album Penis Envy – possibly the greatest feminist musical work ever – featured sharp and humorous put downs of patriarchy (Beta Motel, Berkertex Bribe, Smother Love, Dry Weather), scathingly ironic descriptions of the life development of workers from birth to death (Systematic Death), and a brilliant critique of the left and the right's ideology (Where Next Columbus? – with the attack upon Marxists clearly one upon Marx's many false prophets who sprouted in the 20th Century after his death). Crass's album Stations of the Crass excavated as completely as is possible on four sides of a double-album the bowels of capitalist power, exploitation, war, poverty, ideology, and culture. These two albums remain possibly two of the finest works of political songwriting to date.

I am not he, nor master, nor lord no crown to wear, no cross to bear in stations.
I am not he, nor shall be, warlord of nations –
these heroes have run before me, now dead upon the flesh piles, see, waiting for their promised resurrection. There is none, nothing but the marker, crown or cross, in stone upon these graves.
Promise of the ribbon was all it took,where only the strap would leave it's mark upon these slaves.
What flag to thrust into this flesh, rag, bandage, mop in their flowing death?
Taken aside, they were pointed a way, for god, queen and country.
Now in silence they lie. They ran before these masters,
children of sorrow as slaves to that trilogy -
they had no future.
They believed in democracy, freedom of speech,
yet dead on the flesh piles I hear no breath, I hear no hope,
no whisper of faith from those who have died
for some others' privilege - Out from your palaces, princes and queens!
Out from your churches, you clergy, you christs!
I'll neither live nor die for your dreams,
I'll make no subscription to your paradise – Crass

Punk rock also brought an exciting and refreshing infusion of women and their points of view into a domain previously dominated by the male crotch. The Au Pairs, Crass, Delta 5, Essential Logic, Penetration, the Raincoats, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Slits, X-Ray Spex are the most obvious examples. Indeed, punk opened songwriting into literally any arena, but the political was rock's last breach of conquest. The Gang Of Four (the very name says it all) was possibly the most famous band to explicitly attack the system. The commodification of sex, the critique of the Great Man theory of history, the disgust with a society of such pervading dehumanizing rules and regulations, the scandals of those in power, and the profiteering of the entertainment industry, were some of the topics attacked in their albums. This was tight, often reggafied, punk that blasted the system with its catchy hooks.

Crass announced in one of its first few songs that “punk is dead.” They were so right – and so early in its development. Punk was born partly as a fashion commodity, and as its market expanded, it lost its shock value and became a staple in the cultural shop window, brand A to reggae's brand B, soul's brand C, and jazz's brand D. Ripped shirts were selling at expensive prices. Record labels were gobbling up as many punk bands as they could, until the market was so saturated that they started laying them off in anticipation for the Next Big Things: New Wave, Indie Pop, Grunge and Hip Hop. A Mohawk barely lifts an eyelid today. This was not totally ironic. Punk, or at least the Sex Pistols, had been partially concocted by a businessman, Malcolm McLaren, versed in Situationist theory and well oiled in the marketing power of shock value and youth appeal.

Still, for all its commercialisation, punk was inspired by a thousand singers and musicians, many of whom could barely play their two and a half chords. They were writing super-catchy hooks to insightful and rebellious lyrics aimed at drilling holes into the system's ideology. It embodied a paradox; it was part rebel, part fashion. But it brought rock as an art form to its total undoing – never again could a pop song be heard without one's nose wrinkling in distaste and derision. Among those who had been fed such staples as the classic singles by the Buzzcocks, Clash, Only Ones, Pistols, Crass, Adverts, Damned, Jam, Kleenex, Penetration, Saints, Boys, Stiff Little Fingers, U.K. Subs, Sham 69, or Wire, to name just a few, who could stomach the many styles of pop that followed, even the rebellious ones? Only hip-hop could be seen as punk's successor, expressing the alienation and disempowerment of African-Americans as punk had with British youth a decade earlier. 1970s punk was of course not a totally British phenomenon. Classic punk sprouted in all continents, besides Europe, mainly in Asia (Japan in particular), Australia, and North America.

Punk's energy was and is infectious. It was a unique cultural phenomenon that has long been gone, though its surreal and revolutionary spirit could be heard for decades before and after it. It lives today mainly in the memories of those who shared its moment, and those who play the massive musical legacy it left behind. It was not intended to collect dust in a museum of the popular song. Rather, it was intended to replace the silent museums of death with the loud cries of the living. In that endeavor, even though few of its songs were avowedly socialist, it may perhaps be not all that far from the socialist's heart.